New gel coatings may lead to better catheters and condoms

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Catheters, intravenous lines, and other types of surgical tubing are a medical necessity for managing a wide range of diseases. But a patient’s experience with such devices is rarely a comfortable one.

Now MIT engineers have designed a gel-like material that can be coated onto standard plastic or rubber devices, providing a softer, more slippery exterior that can significantly ease a patient’s discomfort. The coating can even be tailored to monitor and treat signs of infection.

In a paper published today in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials, the team describes their method for strongly bonding a layer of hydrogel — a squishy, slippery polymer material that consists mostly of water — to common elastomers such as latex, rubber, and silicone. The results are “hydrogel laminates” that are at once soft, stretchable, and slippery, and impermeable to viruses and other small molecules.

The hydrogel coating can be embedded with compounds to sense, for example, inflammatory molecules. Drugs can also be incorporated into and slowly released from the hydrogel coating, to treat inflammation in the body.

The team, led by Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, bonded layers of hydrogel onto various elastomer-based medical devices, including catheters and intravenous tubing. They found that the coatings were extremely durable, withstanding bending and twisting, without cracking. The coatings were also extremely slippery, exhibiting much less friction than standard uncoated catheters — a quality that could reduce patients’ discomfort.

The group also coated hydrogel onto another widely used elastomer product: condoms. In addition to enhancing the comfort of existing latex condoms by reducing friction, a coating of hydrogel could help improve their safety, since the hydrogel could be embedded with drugs to counter a latex allergy, the researchers say.

“We’ve demonstrated hydrogel really has the potential to replace common elastomers,” Zhao says. “Now we have a method to integrate gels with other materials. We think this has the potential to be applied to a diverse range of medical devices interfacing with the body.”

Zhao’s co-authors are lead author and graduate student German Parada, graduate students Hyunwoo Yuk and Xinyue Liu, and visiting scientist Alex Hsieh.

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